Stars Return Home After Winning NAIA Title

Wednesday, March 21st 2007, 7:26 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ As the bus carrying the national champions pulled into the parking lot, there was a problem _ an illegally parked car blocked the bus from making a triumphant loop around to the gymnasium entrance.

So, the players from Oklahoma City University simply grabbed their bags and walked the rest of the way, where about 60 fans waited to cheer them as they arrived home Wednesday afternoon.

This is life in the NAIA, a world away from the big-time atmosphere of the NCAA Division I tournament. But for the Stars _ many of whom started their hoops careers at Division I schools _ winning a title at the small-college level is just as sweet.

``Not everybody gets to do this,'' said OCU junior guard Kameron Gray, the NAIA Division I tournament's most valuable player. ``Not everybody has the chance to win a national championship. We're blessed that we can say that.''

Oklahoma City University (35-2) won the NAIA title at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo., on Tuesday, beating Concordia (Calif.) 79-71 before about 3,900 fans _ a large crowd for an NAIA game.

Championship celebrations are more low-key at the NAIA level. On Wednesday, OCU coach Ray Harper's office door adjacent to Abe Lemons Arena _ where the Stars play their home games in a gym named for their legendary former coach _ had simple decorations: two sheets of paper, each with a blue star, taped on, with thin blue and white ribbons attached to the door's handle.

A half-century ago, OCU was an NCAA power, reaching regional finals in 1956 and 1957. All told, OCU made 11 NCAA tournament appearances before financial considerations forced the school to drop into the NAIA before the 1985-86 school year.

The university is currently considering a move back to the NCAA.

The NAIA men's basketball title was the fifth for OCU, but its first since 1996. OCU's first title came in 1991 _ when its athletic teams were known as the Chiefs _ with a squad led by Eric Manuel, who left Kentucky following his freshman season after being banned from competition by the NCAA. Manuel and the Chiefs won another title in 1992, and OCU won again in 1994 and 1996.

Those titles ``mean just as much to us as winning any other championship would to any school,'' OCU President Tom McDaniel said.

All but a handful of top NAIA teams usually feature NCAA Division I transfers, and OCU has remained a small-school power by giving players like Manuel their second (or third or fourth) chances. This season's OCU roster included transfers from Weber State (Nick Covington), Cal Poly (Gray), New Mexico State (Duane John), Norfolk State (Armand Massogo) and Nebraska (B.J. Walker).

At the small-college level, it's not uncommon to see major roster turnover in the course of one season. For example, the Stars _ who lost to Texas Wesleyan on a last-second 3-pointer in last season's NAIA final _ had no returning starters this season. Among OCU's starters against Concordia were John, Gray, Covington and Walker, all of whom had double-figure scoring averages this season.

Blending such players, many of whom come to OCU for only one or two seasons, into a cohesive unit is not easy, Harper said.

``You have to get guys to understand roles, be able to make sacrifices,'' he said. ``We talk to them, that's what life's all about. You've got to make sacrifices in life. That's what we're trying to do. We're trying to prepare these kids for after basketball as well. It's not all about winning championships.''

Gray, a junior guard from Oakland, Calif., averaged 13.1 points a game for Cal Poly as a sophomore during the 2003-04 season before arriving at OCU. He will turn 25 next month.

Harper ``taught us about growing up, being a man and having responsibility and taking care of business on the floor and off the floor,'' Gray said. ``I'm definitely going to get my degree. I'm going to be done next fall.''

Harper, in his second season at OCU, has coached national-championship teams before, having guided Kentucky Wesleyan to NCAA Division II titles in 1999 and 2001. He said the championships goals feel the same.

``A championship is a championship ... it's a special feeling,'' said Harper, hoarse from coaching in five games in seven days. ``Those guys, it's something they'll never forget.

``You can't ever take it away from them. That moment is theirs, for the rest of their lives. ... They'll have the opportunity to be known as national champions forever.''